Police Budgets

Signs saying “Defund the Police” filled the air during protests throughout early-mid June 2020 in response to recent events involving police brutality. “Defunding” can mean many different things and can signify varying intentions, but this phrase generally calls out the ambiguous and immense role of the police force in American society. A recent New York Times article uses census data assembled by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy to compare 1977 and 2017 police budgets. In their study including 150 large cities, they found “the average share of general expenditures devoted to the police has gradually increased by about 1.2 percentage points since the late 1970s, to 7.8 percent.” This “relatively modest change” gains significance when seen alongside a “steep nationwide decline in violent crime since the early 1990s.”

Source: New York Times

According to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation assembled by a 2012 Justice Policy Institute report, both violent and property crime rates in the United States have been declining since 1991, by 43% and 41% respectively. Since the average increase in municipal police budgets cannot be explained by an average increase in violent crime in cities, the article from the New York Times looks towards different explanations. The article explores various explanations including repercussions from the War on Drugs that began in the 1960s. State and local governments invested in more technology, gear, and training for police departments, which in the zero-sum game of government budgets, resulted in the shrinking of funding for other services. Without investment into social services, the role of police forces grew to include responding to domestic and substance abuse cases which had been typically handled by other professionals like social workers. With an increased police presence in many communities came an increase in the public perception of crime and further investment into policing. The article also notes a trend between the increase of African-American populations in cities and the expansion of forces and spending within police departments.

Source: Justice Policy Institute

While many of these factors are hard to quantify, a 2010 report from the National Institute of Justice called, “Making Police more Affordable: Managing costs and Measuring Value in Policing,” conducts a case study in Mesa, Arizona to look for explanations behind the nationwide increase in police spending. Two reasons were attributed to the increase of police force spending in Mesa: an expansion of the city’s police force and higher “per-unit labor costs” due to higher salaries and the increasing cost of benefits for police officers. But why hire more officers when reported crime in Mesa has been in decline for the last decade? The authors of this report asked Mesa police officers this question and got three main responses: there “has been a steady increase in demand for police services,” “police work has become more complex over time,” and, “there are considerable inefficiencies in police work today.” This final answer came primarily from supervisors and senior management. The inefficiencies described include an inadequate use of modern technology, a surplus of officers responding to calls and reporting to crime scenes, and an expansion in the role of police officers, making them a “social agency of first resort for the poor.” 

by Rebeka Rooks


Further Reading:

The Reality of US city Budgets: Police Funding Eclipses most other Agencies (City Metric, Jun 19 2020)

Race and State in City Police Spending Growth: 1980 to 2010 (Sage Journals, Jun 8 2016)

Which States are Talking about Police Reform After George Floyd (The Marshall Project, Jun 18 2020)

Support for Defunding the Police Department is Growing. Here’s Why it’s not a Silver Bullet. (The Marshall Project, Jun 9 2020)

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